Doings things you’re expected to do versus doing exactly what you want to do: these are hard to distinguish sometimes, and even harder to articulate. The fact that I’m even able to draw the distinction between the two shows the immense privilege I’ve had to be able to do things I want to do.
But I am going to try to articulate the difference here, because it has been weighing on my mind quite a bit in the past two weeks.
While I was abroad, I only did things I wanted to do.
There was zero bureaucracy, or required meetings, or turning in busy work or memorizing useless facts.
If I didn’t want to do something, I just didn’t do it. No one forced me to do anything. Not only did I have control, but in that control I had so much freedom.
It was this crazy dichotomy where I had total control of my own time and therefore had total freedom to do whatever I wanted. That level of independence was unbelievable. I have never been happier.
It’s not like I sat around. I read tons of books, started a new tab on my blog, worked an internship from 9am to 6pm, worked out, ate healthy, watched movies, went out to bars, danced, traveled, had deep talks with friends, and actually got enough sleep. I was living.
At Duke, most of that has not held true. Every day I am doing so many things I don’t want to be doing. The lack of desire for these activities does not stem from laziness but from an inability for me to see the purpose behind these activities. More than that, I have this nagging feeling that I am running out of time. You know what I mean. It’s that feeling that the clock will expire and shi* will hit the fan. I think I have a fear of the time actually running out and everything not getting done. I make list after list just to calm myself down and to tell myself that I do in fact have enough time to do it all. I hate living this way.
Abroad was a positive work-life balance. I worked from 9-6, and then I came home, worked out, ate dinner, and did what I love: worked on my blog, talked to friends, watched a movie, or read a book. At Duke, my days are different. I wake up, work out, eat breakfast, go to class, do some homework, go to another class, eat lunch, do homework, go to one more class, do homework, eat dinner, do homework, go to a meeting, go to another meeting, do homework, start to fall asleep while doing homework, do a little bit more homework, and then sleep. And repeat. And all the while I have this feeling that I won’t get it all done.
This results in work days that aren’t eight or nine hours, but are instead twelve to fourteen.
That is unhealthy. It is unrealistic. And, honestly, it feels unfair.
But sometimes I don’t know how to live the kind of work-life balance that I had abroad. Because that’s not what Duke students do. That’s not what Americans do. We work all the time. We achieve. We sacrifice our own personal health for the sake of productivity and accomplishments. It’s disgusting.
I don’t have a problem with working all the time when it’s work I like to do that feels beneficial. Abroad I really was working all the time… In my free time I was advancing my own knowledge (like reading a book), working out, or working on my blog. I was productive; I was working; I was making change.
But here at Duke I am working even more, but it’s not enjoyable or beneficial. I am achieving, but I am not learning. I am doing, but I am not changing. I am accomplishing, but I am not living.
The hardest part about all of this is that these issues are part of a larger culture that is difficult to change. I can’t just change the American education system, or the Duke mentality, or my own hyper-production personality that struggles to say no to pointless assignments.
Abroad, I barely had homework. But I had a professor who invested in me so much that I would consider him a second dad. He believed in me intellectually, challenged me to see the world differently and to chase after my dreams. He supported me in all my endeavors (He even sent an email on my behalf to one of the newspapers to which I submitted an op-ed, telling them they were exhibiting age discrimination by not choosing my op-ed because it was better written than anything he had read by “those oldies who write intellectual BS.” I cried happy tears over his belief in me.) I learned more in his classes than my entire college career and I always left his class challenged but empowered to learn as much as I could so that I could help make the most change in this world.
Here, sometimes I go to classes and want to hit my head against a wall. Last week, I was reading reports on the “amazing developments in global food access,” in the back of my mind thinking about how last semester my entire office had an emergency meeting about the nutritional crisis in Nigeria. Somehow these reports were out of touch with reality. Somehow reading these reports felt pointless, almost unjust. This week, I was learning about the optimal price for cholera vaccines in a poor nation, thinking about the actual cholera epidemic in Haiti in 2010 and how aid organizations just donated money so that the government could provide vaccines. Haiti didn’t even have the financial means to think about the socially efficient vaccination price. Somehow this lecture felt pointless, unrealistic.
I have written so many “500-word” essays and read so many intellectualized articles over the past two weeks where I have wanted to throw the pages in the trash. Last semester, I read over 700 news articles and wrote over 200 pages on the state of our world: various current events and how Trump would affect different areas of health and what the next steps for TB policies are for the 30 most endemic countries. I was writing and reading things that mattered. I wasn’t wasting my time. I wasn’t reading an article for the sake of the article. I was learning. I was making change.
Achieving is exhausting, defeating, stressful, dramatic, emotional, difficult, and sometimes even humiliating.
Learning is invigorating, inspiring, encouraging, supportive, and positive.
How could one possibly think learning and achieving are the same?
So then why do we Duke students often interchange the two terms? How do we students of the American education system often do this? How do we creator and implementers and users of the American education system think this is okay? That this is just? That education is about checking boxes?
Achievement and Learning are on two opposite ends of a spectrum called Quality Of Life.
Are you living a life of learning or achieving?
Abroad I lived a life of learning. Right now I worry I could slip into a life of achieving. And with that comes sadness, anxiety, a loss of energy, and a confusion about my purpose and dreams.
How do I keep myself from slipping into the achievement mentality? Graduate? No, that’s pessimistic.
Going to college, I thought I’d learn so much about who I am, where I’m going, what I want to do. In reality, college has taught me who I’m not, where I’m not going, what I don’t want to do.
I don’t regret having gone to Duke. I don’t regret being here now. I am happy that at this stage of my life I am learning that I do not want to live a life of achievement, that I do not want to check all the right boxes, that I do not want to chase after success instead of fulfillment. But those are very hard lessons to learn. I wouldn’t say every minute of my three years here has been wonderful or happy. There have been extremely hard times. But I am happy that I am learning valuable life lessons through, ironically, feeling frustrated about the lack of learning in other areas of Duke. Seeing that even in college it’s hard to find education that is truly learning-based and not achievement-based has shown me that I will have to be strategic about the kind of career I choose, the kind of people with which I surround myself, the kind of life I live after Duke. I don’t want a career where I cannot put my work down at 5pm. I do not want to go to a graduate school where everyone is only achieving. I do not want to surround myself with people who get more out of life from achievements than from building relationships. I do not want to live a life where I am not doing what I love, but instead am doing things that I am expected to do.
I have found a niche at Duke—lots of friends who understand what it means to live a life of learning, professors who understand what it means to teach instead of assign, advisors who understand what it means to provide life advice instead of impersonal career advice, and environments where I can show my imperfect side and still feel loved. But that is a niche. It is not all of Duke. I wish I could say all of Duke is as amazing as my niche is.
I love Duke for my niche. I love Duke for what it has taught me about who I am not and the life I do not want to live. I love Duke for the basketball games and the incredibly inspiring people. But I do not love Duke for this underlying sense that life, and school, is about achievement. I do not blame Duke for this mentality. That is not all on Duke. I think the blame is shared among all institutions of higher learning where lots of smart kids are in one place. The blame is shared with the entire American education system. The blame is shared with my own rebellion of not wanting people to tell me what to do or what to learn. The blame is shared with my own inability to separate my incredible experiences abroad from the reality of going to an academically demanding school.
I want to make the most of my last year and a half here. I want to live a life of learning. I want to challenge others to do the same. But I have to be so careful that I don’t get swept up in the scary environments here that promote achieving, that promote success over mental, physical and spiritual health, that encourage self-improvement so much that helping others is entirely neglected. Those are scary parts of Duke that give us a bad name. They are not Duke. But sometimes they feel like Duke.
It’s hard not to get swept up in that mentality. Freshman year I had a great year because I stayed true to myself. Sophomore year I got swept up in that negative culture, and I had a terrible year. This semester can be a great one if I can have the discernment to surround myself with the right people, the right activities, the right environments. And though I am frustrated that my classes often feel like I am achieving instead of learning, I am happy that I am learning something more important, anyway: how to be who I am meant to be, and stay on a path towards happiness and fulfillment, regardless of what is happening around me. I wouldn’t trade learning this lesson for anything, even if there have been some hard moments. Learning this lesson, of how to stay true to myself, allows me to reflect and ask myself: How do I find other outlets here where I can learn? How do I surround myself with people who will allow me, encourage me, and teach me, how to learn? How do I put myself in environments outside of the classroom where learning is facilitated? Finding answers to these questions keeps me from getting overwhelmed by the achievement mentality so that I can instead see all the amazing parts of Duke that make me so happy and proud to be here.
[Let me know if you ever want to talk about my journey of trying (TRYING is a key word) to stay true to myself at Duke. Or if you ever need any advice. Or a shoulder to cry on. Or someone to tell you that it’s hard but that you’re doing a great job. I haven’t done a perfect job; sophomore year would have been so much better if I had done a perfect job. But I have learned a lot of lessons along the way, and what good are lessons if I can’t share them with others so that they can hopefully not make the same mistakes as I did?]